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Composed: 1983
Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn) 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (6 graduated drums, 4 suspended cymbals, crotales, 6 temple blocks, piatti, snare drum, field drum, xylophone, triangle, tam-tam, chimes, bass drum, vibraphone, lathe on leather), harp, piano (= celesta), strings, and solo timpani
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

Born in Chicago but raised in Santa Barbara, William Kraft has been one of the West Coast’s most important musical voices for nearly four decades. In addition to his tenure as the Principal Timpanist of the LA Phil for 18 of his 26 years with the orchestra, he was assistant conductor for 3 years, and served as its composer-in-residence from 1981-1985, during which time he founded and directed the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group. He was also the founding director of the Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble. As a percussion soloist, he played the American premieres of seminal works such as Stockhausen’s Zyklus and Boulez’ Le marteau sans maître.

Kraft’s Concerto, still a standard of percussion repertoire, casts a spotlight on one of the orchestra’s largest, possibly loudest, yet most often “behind-the-scenes” instruments. The timpani evolved from small, rope-tensioned Arabic drums called nakers, which were carried on a sling by the player and played largely for military movements and ceremonies. Modern-day timpani are comprised of large, deep bowls – often hand-hammered copper – upon which synthetic or calfskin heads are stretched and tuned using a foot-pedal mechanism. In an orchestral setting it is most common to find four drums in graduated sizes; Kraft’s Concerto expands the set to include a fifth. In his work, the composer explores a wide spectrum of effects on the timpani: the player is instructed to play with gloved hands of different materials or with the drums muted to create unconventional timbres, and to play the drums while tuning with his foot at the same time, creating a “cascading” glissando sound much like the portamentos of the string section. The piece also calls for an array of mallets and the use of percussive techniques not usually written in timpani music, such as multiple-bounce, or “buzz” rolls.

If one considers that the percussion-instrument family may be second-oldest only to the human voice, it seems curious that in the realm of solo literature – or even orchestral repertoire – percussion is still in its infancy when compared to strings or piano, its younger cousins. Still, since the premiere of Kraft’s First Timpani Concerto in 1984 by timpanist Thomas Akins and the Indianapolis Symphony, conducted by John Nelson, the percussion world has seen an explosion of interest, both in the study and performance of percussion as a career and the discovery of the instruments’ sound potential by composers. Kraft’s percussion compositions have remained at the forefront of the literature, inspiring composers to create new solos and chamber pieces for percussion, even leading to Kraft’s Second Timpani Concerto, premiered in 2005 – just over two decades after the First – by timpanist Dave Herbert and the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

A solo cadenza starts this Concerto slowly, almost disjointedly, and builds to a rhythmic groove that crashes into an energetic conversation with the low strings and double reeds, punctuated by comments from pizzicato strings, winds, and brass. Sweeping lines from the brass give way to brilliant chords in the strings and woodwinds as the timpanist continues with urgent interjections. A prominent temple block solo echoes the recurring statements of the timpani and orchestra as the orchestra rises to an impassioned climax. Seeming to concede, the timpanist gives way with a sigh, letting the woodwinds and metal sounds have the last word. The second movement is a release after the tension of the first; string portamentos move the listener across a restless sea of sound-textures; here, the timpanist uses rolls and glissandi to answer and support the gentle crests and falls of the orchestra. The third movement jarringly interrupts the listener’s dream; pulsing brass and percussion flicker in and out of focus amidst music-box-like interludes as the timpanist emerges full-force, a powerhouse of rhythm and sound.

Percussionist Deanna Hudgins is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.